How to Plan a Korean American Wedding Ceremony

For the most part we are all pretty familiar with traditional western weddings. If you’re not, I have an entry here that breaks down your wedding day timeline. If you’re like most of our clients you identify with more than just one culture and if you’re looking to host a Korean-American wedding there is a lot to consider. I’ll start by saying that it is one of the most beautifully rich rituals I’ve seen so far. It’s rich in color, rich in intention and rich in historical context— you just can’t go wrong in sharing with your family and friends.

In this post I’m going to explain how to incorporate Paebaek-- the traditional Korean ceremony--into your western style wedding day. We are cross-cultural wedding planners, which means we help couples from diverse backgrounds infuse traditional elements into their American wedding. This typically comes about when a couple wants to honor their own or their partners heritage by weaving traditional elements into their wedding day.

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I received a question from my client Erica who is Korean that inspired this post. While she wasn’t originally set on incorporating Paebaek ceremony, we put together a few options for her to decide on the best way to approach this. Erica saw a wedding that I did in my portfolio and these were her exact questions: “In what sequence did the couple do that ceremony? Did they have a first look then do the ceremony in between the ceremony and reception? Or did they do that on a separate date? We're still stumped on how to time this thing.”

Something to keep in mind is that we work with our couples to help infuse their culture into their wedding. But most our clients still want to keep the traditional framework of a western wedding so it doesn’t always happen so perfectly as it would if we were to simply follow the traditional ritual. We refer to this as planning a modern celebration with a hint of tradition. Often times you’ll find us making a few concessions to make the entire production function while maintaining the integrity of the ritual. For example, we might cut the cocktail hour shorter to perform the Korean-American wedding ceremony right after the American ceremony without cutting too much into dinner time, like I did in this case.

WHAT IS PAEBAEK

Paebaek (peh-bek) is a traditional Korean wedding ritual whereby the bride is formally welcomed into the groom’s home and accepted as part of the grooms family. Nowadays, the bride’s family also participates and is seen a mutual display of welcoming each family into the fold.

In preparation for Paebaek there is special attire that is worn and a colorful ceremonial set up. Here is what is typically needed to complete the traditional Paebek setup:

Food (음식 )
Decorative background panels (병풍)
Embroidered bamboo floor (돗자리)
2 silk cushions (방석 2개)
Teapot with 2 teacups (주전자 1 개 / 잔 2 개)
Big and small wooden tables (큰상 1개 / 작은상 1 개)

The main parts of the ritual are the bows, the toast and the blessings.

  • Bowing - Beginning with the groom’s parents, the bride and groom will bow to the parents and relatives. The bowing is intended to show reverence and devotion to their new family. There is a number of bows to be performed for the varying members which can be accurately guided by the professional Paebaek master of ceremonies.

  • Tea & Blessings - After each bowing, the couple will serve tea to their elders. In return the elders will provide words of wisdom and blessings. They may also give them white envelopes with money to send them well on their way.

  • Dates & Chestnuts - The professional Paebaek provider will set out food including dates and chestnuts, which symbolize children. During the ceremony, the elders who received the bows will toss the dates and chestnuts for the bride and groom to catch in the apron provided. The meaning behind this is meant to encourage many healthy offspring. Legend has it that the amount of chestnuts caught will yield that many boys and the dates caught signal the amount of girls the couple will have.

  • Bowing w/Siblings - After all the bowing to the elders, the siblings in the same age range or younger will bow with the bride and groom.

  • The Piggyback Ride - Lastly, the groom traditionally carries his bride on his back around the table as a show of strength and love he will devote to her throughout their lives together. Mothers may also be included.

WHAT IS WORN

The attire required for a traditional Paebaek is an 11-piece ensemble referred to as Hanbok. The bride will normally wear a Korean traditional dress or Hanbok. And the most beautiful attire I’ve seen to date is when the wonsam-- a female ceremonial topcoat historically worn by royalty-- is worn over the Hanbok. Additionally the bride will typically have a jokduri (a ceremonial coronet) and binyeo (giant hairpin) in her hair. The groom will wear a hanbok as well with a decorative waistband.

HOW TO INCORPORATE PAEBAEK

We typically hire a professional provider of Paebaek as the master of ceremonies that will formally guide all parties through the bows, the toast and the blessings.

If you would like to incorporate Paebaek into your American wedding day we’ve found that the best time happens after the ceremony between cocktail hour and the reception. This can also be done early morning before the wedding day festivities happen as a private ceremony between the two families. Or this can be done as part of the rehearsal dinner before the wedding day or after the wedding day. Historically Paebaek was performed after the marriage.

MY PARTNER IS NOT KOREAN

If the majority of your guests are Korean meaning both sides of the family are Korean, then it would be appropriate to have a traditional Korean ceremony in Korean. However, if one side of the family is not Korean, it’s important to hire a master of ceremonies that can translate the ceremony into English for all to enjoy and appreciate.  

Over time Paebaek has found a way to blend beautifully with western culture. The traditional Paebaek without western infusion is a two hour long celebration. There are many more intricacies and facets to a true traditional Korean ceremony but for the purpose of serving my clients this is typically the best way for us to infuse their families heritage into their own established American culture.

MY CLIENTS KOREAN AMERICAN WEDDING

I wanted to share a perspective with you from a past client of mine who has done this. Here was her experience as a Korean American bride marrying someone who is native to American culture.

What is Mat’s cultural background?
According to Mat's 23andMe result, he is 40% British & Irish. His family has been in North America for many generations... so maybe we can refer to his cultural background as blended American European? Or we can say he was born and bred in Manhattan Beach.”

Did you run into any challenges trying to incorporate Paebaek into your wedding?
”Finding the space to hold it could have been an issue but our venue was fantastic on accommodating a location perfect for Paebaek and gave us a few options. At the end, we decided to have it set up on the dance floor.

After having gone through this process would you have done anything differently with regards to incorporating the ritual into your wedding?
”Paebaek is commonly held after the wedding ceremony and before reception. It could have been kept more privately (which is more traditional) with immediate family members, but we wanted to share that moment with our extended families and friends. It was a very personal and emotional moment for my family and friends especially to those who were from Korea. In a way, we were showing respect to my cultural background and also it symbolized two cultures coming together as one. I was born and spent my early childhood in Korea, it will be always a part of who I am. Many guests were touched by the experience and thanked us for sharing that moment. “

IN SUMMARY

We’d love to hear about how you plan to infuse your heritage into your wedding. If you need help planning your Korean-American wedding ceremony, we are here to serve.